Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque

by Edward Albee
Directed by David Esbjornson
Featuring Jane Alexander, Michael Hayden, Peter Francis James, Laila Robins
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 488 West 42nd Street
March 5, 2012 — April 15, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 11, 2012

(L-R) Laila Robins Jane Alexander. Image by Joan Marcus.

Life has intervened this past week, theatre wise, to delay my musings on this spare and luscious revival inaugurating one of the new spaces at Signature Theatre‘s stunning new suite of performance and audience congregation spaces on 42nd Street. Elsewhere this week my mind has been occupied by Genet and Daisey and, oh let’s just stop the list there. Before I can enter into my essay-interaction with Mike Daisey‘s final Public Theater performance of his work of creative non-fiction political theatre, I turn my head uptown and westward. Toward playwright Edward Albee and director David Esbjornson, toward actors Laila Robins and Jane Alexander, toward an exploration of life and friendship and health and sickness and self-awareness and life’s mysteries. Resonance on stage, wisdom in words, rich articulate craft in the hands of an ensemble of stunning actors. The Lady from Dubuque.

Jo (Laila Robins) and Sam (Michael Hayden), married hosts, hold a suburban party that goes late and events transpire overnight and lives and relationships are resolved. Fights and emotionally-laden party games and moments of brutal honesty between the hosts and among the guests. Yes, a touch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a few extra characters and different themes (fatal illnesses for one) and party games that are destined to reveal. Party guests include married Fred (C.J. Wilson) and Lucinda (Catherine Curtain), and dating-debating-engagement-everyone-tells-her-don’t-marry-the-jerk Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Carol (Tricia Pauluccio). The magic-realistic touch in this cast is the inclusion of two late night visitors who have a task that could be to ease two characters onto their next phases of existence, could be to visit adult children, could be something else entirely.  Oscar (Peter Francis James) and Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) charm, berate, test wits, and are clear with their mission — to get both Jo and Sam to accept their conditions.

The emotional core of this play comes in stages as a backbone formed by Jo — Jo’s illness, Jo’s experience of the pain of her illness, Elizabeth’s interactions with Jo allowing her to sink into her illness. Sam’s journey of acceptance of the changing circumstances of her life and his life are a parallel theme but for me pales in comparison. Jo calls through her barbed wit in the first moments of the play for Sam to focus in on what is really happening. When Sam and the guests start in on a game, and kind of “guess who I am” kind of adventure, Jo cuts it short before moving over to the Eames chair set piece with “Your name is Sam and this is your house and I am your wife and I am dying.” A laugh line as delivered sardonically by Robins, but the core for this woman who wants her husband merely to focus on the fact of her illness so that she can focus on living her last moments as best she can. The howls of pain once she can no longer pretend she is not feeling them, and her relaxation into the arms of the woman who might or might not be her mother, echo for me with primal power now days after the performance. Jo’s silence and then absence for the play’s final scenes do not eradicate her character’s lasting power in the story. Sam’s revelations of his role in the universe and in their partnership and the questions he now just begins to ask by the end of the play are powerful, and yet an emotional afterthought for me. But wow.

Set by John Arnone evokes privilege and modern suburban life — out of time and in time all at once. Eames is the perfect choice for one of the few pieces of furniture adorning this one set living room world.  Director Esbjornson has created a marvelous choreography. Robins and Alexander transport.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 19, 2012)

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